Meet Paola of Mayamiko

Determined to create sustainable solutions for issues of poverty affecting families in developing countries, Paola Masperi partnered with creative artisans in Malawi to create Mayamiko, a fashion-forward line of women's wear.  We recently had a chance to hear from Paola about what inspires Mayamiko's brand, the joy and difficulties of working in the developing world and the impact Fair Trade fashion its having in Malawi.

You have built a successful and beautiful line of clothing, accessories, and housewares. What was the inspiration behind Mayamiko?

I started Mayamiko in 2008 as a charitable project, with the long term view of turning it into a sustainable business for everyone involved. I had been doing work in Malawi (and other developing countries) since 2005 and I could see so much potential that to be unlocked. Providing education and skills creates a way out of poverty that is sustainable and not dependent on aid. Many studies have shown that women’s education has a ripple effect not only on the women themselves and their families but also on the communities they live in. Couple that with an interest in fashion, the availability of wonderful fabrics and the many artisanal techniques that seemed to be slowly getting lost, that’s how the idea came about!

Providing education and skills creates a way out of poverty that is sustainable and not dependent on aid.

At the very heart of it all there is a desire to help change people’s lives by giving them choices. Choices come in the form of education, skills training, access to finance and many other options that we often take for granted.

Tailoring and sewing has always been a pretty widespread skill but often at very basic level in Malawi. Many of the other components required for people to be empowered to achieve change, however, were missing: broader education, more in depth technical training, entrepreneurship skills, self-belief etc. And of course it was also about taking the wonderfully creative skills of many artisans and turning them into a way of making a sustainable living.

There are talented artisans all over the world. In your effort to combine traditional fabrics with modern designs, why did you choose to work in Malawi?

When I first had the idea for this business I had been working with Malawi for several years. At that point the country was pretty close to my heart because of its incredible beauty, warmth and potential, but also because of all the countries I had been to, Malawi seemed to need the holistic approach more than most. This is why it felt like such a natural starting point.

But you are right and we are now trying to see if the same or a similar model which has been successful in Malawi could be replicated elsewhere. We get many requests to mentor similar programs in other African countries, and I feel very proud and blessed that we can share our journey. Beyond Africa, we’ve had our eye on the gorgeous batik, lace and handloom from Sri Lanka and are always looking to partner with projects of a similar ethos.

Mayamiko builds relationships and invests in social and economic growth in order to bring fair trade and environmentally sustainable solutions to the fashion industry. Tell us about the relationship between the Mayamiko fashion brand and Mayamiko Trust.

One would not exist without the other - it is a symbiotic relationship.

Mayamiko is based on the outskirts of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. Our workshop (the Fashion Lab as we like to call it) and training center are a couple of kilometers down a dirt road in the middle of the local community. We run a charitable training center, where we provide tailoring and sewing training, as well as embroidery and other artisanal skills to disadvantaged women from the local community. We also provide financial education and entrepreneurship training, so our ‘graduates’ are equipped with the right tools to succeed.

Often, on top of our syllabus-based course, we host experienced artisans who come and teach specific skills. Sometimes a trainee may be a beginner at tailoring, but may have other great skills. For example recently one of our new trainees showed us some beautiful up-cycled flip-flops made of old tires, scrap leather and local beads. She is now teaching the other ladies how to make them. So you never know where the creative input might come from! At the end of their training, our graduates can apply for a grant to get a sewing machine and start their own business activity, or some may want to stay and work with us next door in the fashion lab on Mayamiko. It is very much a mutual arrangement, as everyone’s circumstances are different.

Mayamiko the label places orders for products and collections from the lab, which are paid at a fair price. This ensures that the employees of the lab receive good salaries and all the protection and benefits they need in terms of financial, job and health security. The label also donates part of its profits to the charity directly, allowing for new programs and activities to be developed. So customers’s choices really have a great influence on our ability to do what we do - without them there would be no sustainability and we would be back to depending on donations and aid which is exactly what we set out to avoid in the first place.

You have traveled extensively throughout Africa. Tell us more about the HIV pandemic. How exactly has it crippled social systems and economic opportunity to perpetuate poverty from one generation to the next?

This is a big question and hard to summarize. Entire generations in their productive age have been wiped out - women and men who could have been strong contributors to the growth of their countries have had their lives cut short by the disease, and not only that, they have had to step in, care, take responsibility for the orphans and the sick. This has meant that the surviving generation has had a very important role to fill but also that the disease burden has taken them away from other paths they might have pursued in life.

Most of our trainees are in some ways affected HIV/AIDS. Thankfully with medical progress and availability of treatment, people can now go on to have fulfilled and healthy lives and there is more open dialogue about the disease. But there is still work to do in terms of reducing stigma - often the stigma that comes from within oneself is the hardest. And that’s exactly how we feel we can help the most - by having a loving and supportive environment for all.

The market today is flooded with well-meaning labels - from organic to fair trade to direct trade. What does fair trade mean and why should a consumer care? What impact do your customers have when they purchase a Mayamiko product?

Another big question! I think the fashion industry is so complex and the vertical supply chain touches so many points, people, and places that it is very hard to wrap your head around it all. When I started I wanted to do it all - follow from grower to sewer to seller to wearer - but in reality the world is a complex place and the global trade corridors and supply chains mean this is very hard to achieve.

So while I keep my eye on the end goal and keep lobbying and influencing for a holistic change to various aspects of the system, I have to work within the current situation - otherwise I could be waiting a lifetime! So my choice has been to influence and improve where I can, and be very honest about it all. By setting up a social enterprise in Malawi we ensure our team is well paid and protected, we contribute to the tax system, we are committed to buying local. This last commitment is especially difficult because it means we have limited options available in terms of fabrics and trimmings, but we value that the local community is benefiting from every step of our garment making process.

Also our zero waste policy is very important to me. I can see in our small factory how much cutting room waste is produced, and with some creativity all of that can be turned into beautiful products for someone to love and cherish. Same with items which may have not sold as well as we had hoped. Instead of flooding the local second hand market, we upcycle and transform. There’s great joy in new beginnings!

The fashion industry has historically been defined by human rights abuses and environmental degradation. How have you balanced ethical production, high quality designs, and competitive pricing?

It is hard and I’m not even sure we’ll have the perfect formula for a long time!

We start from the main thing - the people who make the garments. How much do we need to pay them fairly so they can have a dignified and empowered life? Then we work from there. And of course we have to strike a balance with what buyers are prepared to pay. In the end, customers love the story about our garments, but first and foremost they have to love the products to make the decision to buy and come back to support the brand again. Sustainability is the end game, and that’s where my eyes are fixed on.

Building any small business - much less one that maintains such high standards of impact and responsibility - is not an easy road. What are some of the challenges you have faced in building Mayamiko?

Every day is a challenge, every entrepreneur will tell you that.

From our workshop being broken into and months’ worth of work and fabric being stolen, to trying to get our head around the bureaucracy of running a business across continents in the right way, to sourcing with very limited options, our tailors being absent for long periods for disease or to take care of others, to shops not paying for stock....the list could go on. Money is always a concern for an entrepreneur - and for a social entrepreneur your most important bills are those you owe to your employees - so you find ways to make sure that if all else goes wrong, you can still pay salaries at the end of the month! This takes a bit of planning, organization, and some sacrifices, but so far it has worked.

It’s all so much fun though, it is extremely fulfilling, rewarding and exciting. The sense that you are doing something that goes beyond the self, can be a very potent motivator.

Since 2008 you have worked tirelessly to invest in some of Malawi’s best creative talents to build an international business. What is next for the Mayamiko fashion brand? Where do you want to go from here?

My book of ideas is still so full. A yoga inspired line is something I have wanted to do for a while. I have been trying to set up a ‘Malawi Fashion Scouting’ competition to help emerging talents, I have been looking at developing a local textile design with the artisans which em- braces traditional techniques and aesthetics with a contemporary flair. We are also looking at replicating our model to other countries, and also expanding the range of skills we teach be- yond textiles and tailoring and sewing.

And there is so much more. But while you keep you eyes on the horizon, the only way to get there is by keep taking one step at a time!

Kassia Binkowski is a Contributing Editor at The Good Trade and the Founder of One Thousand Design. She grew up in Madison, WI and traveled her way around the world to Boulder, CO which she now calls home. Nestled against the Rocky Mountains, Kassia supports innovative organizations from Colorado to Kathmandu tell their stories of social change through writing, photography, and design. Kassia is an eternal optimist and forever a backroad wanderer.